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Battle of Bread: Tricks of the tally trade

Conversation with debtors of the "elephant-leech" tallyman - door-to-door sellers of goods on credit - courtroom tales of wives on the breadline and the defiance of Wiggins the shoemaker.

Published in The Railway Review, 30 July 1880 - read the original article through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.

Illustration: dealer in fancy ware, from 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, available through the LSE Digital LibraryLink opens in a new window.

Dealer in fancy ware, from 'Street Life in London', 1877

I am afraid I must plead guilty to a lack of friendly feeling for the packman fraternity. A recent visit to an East of London County Court has, I regret to say, not tended to eradicate unfavourable impressions long ago arrived at, which were in effect that the entire brotherhood — I refer, of course, to the house-to-house touters in the credit-drapery line of business — may justly be reckoned amongst the worst and the most dangerous enemies that threaten the working man’s domestic felicity. He, the tallyman, is most dangerous, because, in his ways of dealing, he is underhanded and sneaking. He insinuates himself and his wares into a household when the responsible head and protector of it is away, to tempt and cajole weak-minded and foolish women. In hundreds of cases it is the tallyman who sows the seeds of deceit and dishonest secrecy, encouraging their growth until the happy home is gradually undermined, and ofttimes wrecked completely. He is glib, he is oily, he is persuasive and accommodating to the last degree while he is wheedling his victims into his net; but stay until it becomes necessary or judicious to put the screw on! See him, as I saw him, at the county court, with a batch of twenty-seven cases in hand, mounted in the plaintiff’s box, and surveying the crowd of anxious-looking defendants (nearly all women) summoned in regard to his, the tallyman’s, appeal to the law for its assistance and sympathy. His freckled visage might have been a carving in speckled granite for any sign of softness or yielding it betrayed, and Shylock himself could not have turned a deafer ear to the pleading of the unfortunate for a little time. But I was rejoiced to find that the Registrar who examined the tallyman's batch of defaulters (it is not one in ten of such cases that are tried by the County Court Judge) did not permit the inexorable creditor to have it all his own way. When the amount claimed admitted of no denial the officer of the law was of course bound to record a verdict for the plaintiff; but in most instances it was unmistakable that he let them off as lightly as possible. It would have gone hard with them had he been guided by Mr. Tallyman’s evidence. Generally, when the latter was asked by the Registrar what were the means of the defendant, and what proportion of periodical instalments off the debt would satisfy him, he intimated that the debtor had plenty of means, and that there was nothing to prevent him paying the whole sum down on the nail if he chose to do so. The just Registrar, I presume, was compelled to put the question; but he appeared to take as much notice of the reply as though he had addressed himself to an uninteresting parrot who could ejaculate one sentence and nothing besides, and, considering that he had to listen to it probably fifty times a week, this was, perhaps, not to be wondered at. "To be paid in instalments of five shillings a month" was his most frequent judgment, though in many instances, when the debtor's receipt book was put in to show for how many years punctual payment had been made until now, the verdict would be for half-a-crown a month, or perhaps two shillings. But it was all the same to Mr. M'Cool. To obtain a judgment was the thing, and, having succeeded, he took the black-lead pencil out of his mouth to kiss the book against the next defaulter with as much apparent regard for what he was doing as though he were licking a postage stamp.

Twenty-seven cases was the extent of Mr. M'Cool’s list for the day, and I stayed in court and heard them all; but what surprised me more than anything else in connection with them was that in no one instance did a husband appear to repudiate his liability on the ground that the debt had been contracted unnecessarily and without his knowledge. As already intimated, in by far the majority of cases it was the wife who answered to the summons, and when asked whether the goods were obtained with her husband's sanction — whatever the debtor had to say respecting the rubbishing quality of the drapery, and the exorbitant price charged for it — she acknowleged that her husband knew all about the transaction. In one instance only did a woman boldly deny her husband's acquiescence, and further declared that he was now at work in the country, and that if the case was adjourned he would come forward and corroborate her statement. But when Mr. M'Cool, hearing this, selected from the packet of documents before him a little slip of paper, a sort of printed form, with a signature to it, and requested that the debtor might be asked whether it was her husband's signature, there was a change in her complexion and demeanour, and in confusion she confessed that it was. I was so struck by the incident that I afterwards sought a few minutes' conversation with the woman. It was half an hour after her case was disposed of, but she was still in a white heat of fury against Mr. M'Cool, whom she stigmatised as a Judas and a woman-selling traitor.

"And I wish to the good Lord," said she, "that I had been free to open my mouth against him."

"Why, so you were," said I, "in your own defence. If you had cause for opening your mouth against him, why didn't you?"

"I mean respecting that signed paper," said she.

"The paper your husband signed; the paper that authorised the tallyman to give you credit?"

"But my husband never did sign it. I ain't in the court now, and I don't care who hears me say it. It wasn't M'Cool I had the goods of, it was of one of his chaps; and they all have the same system now, to make themselves safe. They can't recover unless they can show that the husband knows all about it; and they have these printed forms, on which it says, 'I hereby request you to give me credit for so and so, and I agree to pay you so much a week.' And you've got to get it signed before they leave the goods."

"By the husband, of course," I remarked.

"Much they care," replied the woman, bitterly; they as good as tell you so. 'I must have your husband's name to this, just for form's sake, you know,' they say, quite light and pleasant, and as though it really was so. 'I'll wait while you take it to him and get him to sign it,' they say, though they know all the while that your husband is away at his work or in the country. Well, don't you see, sir, neighbours oblige neighbours — them that run a tally bill — and they sign for each other."

"What! women-neighbours sign the names of other wives' husbands, do you mean?"

"It doesn't matter who does it," she replied; "school children or anybody else. All they want is the signature, and they don't ask questions. And it's all right so long as you keep up your payments. It ain't till they fall off and she's drove into a corner that a poor woman's husband hears of the tally bill for the first time, and he hears, likewise, that the tallyman has got his promise to pay and his signature. Well, whats to be done? All the cursing and swearing, or beating, either, won't help it. He's got the signature, and if it ain't, then it's forged, and it's as good to him one way as the other."

"I don't exactly see that," I remarked.

"But p'raps you ain't so sharp as he is, or such a rogue," the exasperated she-debtor retorted savagely. "M'Cool knows all about it, and that a man who has got as good a wife as ever broke bread, 'cept for deceiving him this once, ain't likely to have her dragged up in a forgery case if he can beg or borrow the money to make up the instalments. That's my case, as I stand here a living woman, and it's the case — only they are able to keep their payments up — of a dozen others in our street I could mention."

I give the woman's statement exactly as she gave it me, and for what it is worth. Assuming its truth, it provides a key to that which puzzled me so much — how it happened that the whole of Mr. M'Cool's twenty-seven cases were passed unopposed.

There was another unfortunate defendant with whom I had a little conversation, and whose experience of Mr. M'Cool threw a light on another of that gentleman's peculiarities. This was a young woman with a baby in her arms, and she had been sued for the considerable sum of six pounds seventeen shillings, which the Registrar had ordered should be paid at the rate of eight shillings a month. In this case, however, the husband was a consenting party, and I, when I heard her story, could not but think it a pity that he did not somehow manage to appear himself and explain the ingenious manoeuvring by which an original debt of thirty-five shillings was converted into one of a hundred and thirty-seven. The young woman informed me that she had had previous dealings with Mr. M'Cool's young man, and had always paid up punctually. The account of thirty-five shillings was for a stuff dress for herself and a waistcoat for her husband, and just at this time the latter, who was a stonemason, met with an accident at his work, and broke his leg. He was taken to the hospital, where he lay eleven weeks, and, as an inevitable consequence, the tally bill instalments fell into arrear. But Mr. M'Cool did not despair of the matter coming all right in the end. The young stonemason earned a couple of pounds a week when at work, and probably had household goods enough to afford fair picking for a broker acting under a warrant of distraint should such an extreme step become necessary. The tally master was indeed so easy in his mind as regards his prospects of payment that he could afford to burlesque the part of the good Samaritan. "When my husband had been in the hospital," said the young woman with the baby, "the young man who always calls, said to me, 'I tell you what, Mrs.------, it must make you very uncomfortable to have me bothering here week after week, and you with nothing to give me. You haven't been a bad customer, and I don't mind if I do you a good turn. What do you say to having from our place a first-rate Paisley shawl — one worth anybody's money, I mean?' I couldn't make it out at first," said the mason's wife. "'Why, I can't pay what I owe you now,' I said to him. 'That’s just it,' he replied. 'You'll be all right again when your husband comes out of the hospital and gets to work, and a handsome shawl is always a nice thing to have by you. Have one of us, and pawn it — you can, of course, have it out when it suits you — and you will be able to get a trifle of your present bill off your mind.' So next day he brought the shawl, the price of it being two pounds fifteen, and while he waited I took it to pawn, and brought him eight shillings, all they would lend on it."

"But pardon me," I remarked, "did not that open your eyes to the outrageous extent to which you had been imposed on?"

"Well, I told M'Cool's young man I thought it was strange, and he laughed, and said it was all trade jealousy; the pawnbrokers had so many shawls of their own to sell that they made it a practice to run down the value of any one else's that was brought to them. Well," she continued, "my husband wasn't well enough to leave the hospital, and a week or two after M'Cool's young man came again. They were making up the books, he said, and I really must clear off the balance of the first thirty-five shillings, which was seventeen and sixpence. I told him it was not possible, and he offered to help me again, and this time it was silk for a dress he got me to take — fourteen yards, at five and sixpence a yard — and I took it and pawned it, while he waited, for eighteen shillings, and gave him the seventeen and sixpence. Well, that left me in their debt for the shawl and the dress — which you see, sir, was no more use to me than though I had never seen 'em — six pounds twelve, which was to be paid at five shillings a week, as soon as my husband got to work again. Well, sir," and here the poor soul wiped her brimming eyes with a corner of the shawl her baby was wrapped in, "a month ago my husband came out of the hospital, but so broke and weak that the doctor says it will be months before he can go to work, if ever again. And when M'Cool heard of it he came himself and made believe we had deceived him and got his goods under false pretences, and threatened, if he couldn't have his money, he would have our goods, and next day we got the summons. And God knows — I don't — how we are to pay what the judge has ordered; and then he'll put the brokers in, and our little home will be all gone — and don't you think it is a bitter shame, sir?"

The enormous difficulty of escaping from the toils of the ingenious Mr. M'Cool, when once a victim was fairly meshed in them, was furthermore very forcibly illustrated in the case of a shoemaker, who was one of the few men in attendance at the court to respond to the plaintiff's summons. I had marked him before his case came on for hearing, and was puzzled by the pleasant contrast he presented to the dismal majority of Mr. M'Cool’s defaulters. He lived in the immediate neighbourhood, I should say, judging from the fact of his appearing in his shirt sleeves and with his leather apron on, with a bit of wax-end worn fillet-wise round his head to keep his hair out of his eyes when he bent over his work. While all the rest seemed disposed to cultivate conciliation with the inexorable M'Cool, the shoemaker did his best to attract the tally master's gaze in his direction in order that he might wink merry defiance for him and all his designs. When - the debt was six pounds odd - judgment was given against the cobbler, and he was ordered to pay ten shillings a month, he only grinned, and shaking his waxy fist at M'Cool, outraged the sacredness of the court by exclaiming aloud —

"Jolly good luck to your worship, and here's wishing you 'ealth and 'appiness; and as for you, you horse leech — bah! no horse is equal to it. An elephant leech is what I call you."

And, on good terms with himself on account of the crushing dimensions of the epithet he had cast at the enemy, he triumphantly retired.

"I'll tell you how it all come about, sir," said he to me half an hour afterwards, "and how I got to be under that wiper's thumb for a matter of over five years. It's as long ago as that when little by little our tally bill kep' creeping up to that sum, and then, after pressing for it to be paid in a lump, and threatening what he would do if it wasn't paid, he comes one day quite friendly like, and, says he, 'Look here, Wiggins, I don't want to sell you up and ruin your connection, though I could if I liked, as you are well aware, but if you'll be reasonable there's no occasion for us to have anything unpleasant. I don't want to be hard on you for the old account. Give me an I 0 U for the six pounds, and we'll start afresh — on these conditions. You know that our people sell everything you and your family require in the way of clothes, and furniture as well. Buy whatever you want of us — everything, mind — and pay your instalments regular, and you won't hear no more of that six pounds than if you didn't owe it.' Well, sir, the old woman and me — we've got six children — we agreed, and ever since — and there's my book to show it — I've been paying six shillings a week. Payin' through the nose, sir, most awful. Twice as much as things would cost ready money, and very often a great deal more; and obliged to keep the game up too. No being allowed to make shift to try and lower the expense a bit. It u'd be, 'Come, Mrs. Wiggins, ain't it almost time the young uns had a new rig out?' or, 'Come, Wiggins, I shall send in stuff for a new gown for the missus. If you don't make it worth our while to keep up the connection, you'll have our governor down on you for that I 0 U. He was grumbling about it only last week.' It wasn't as though the goods were worth the money, or anything like it; but we had to go on taking 'em, to stave off that procious I O U. I ain't what you may call a hard-up man. I stick to work pretty tight, and I make my thirty shillings a week; but six shillings for the tally bill and five for the rent of our two rooms, left us only nineteen for food, firing, and everything else. And the aggrawatingest part of it was, sir, that none of us seemed to have anything to wear any more than though we wasn't running a tally bill at all. The things we had was such precious rubbish that, in a manner of speaking, if you looked at 'em hard you took the bloom off 'em. Well, sir, I went on paying that six shillings a week, and should have gone on paying it very likely until my old lady had wanted a black gown to follow me in if it hadn't been for a long-headed shopmate of mine. He happened to be at our place one day when M'Cool's chap called. He was sharp on my missus about something or other, and it ended in us telling my shopmate all about it. 'And how much do you think they have been overcharging you, Joe?' says he. 'Well,' says I, 'I should put it down at about half.' So he figured with his pencil for a minute, and then he says, 'And how much interest do you think you've paid for that six pounds in five years?' 'Why, very likely another six,' says I. 'Reck'ning that you've been charged twice as much as the goods were worth,' says he, 'the interest you've paid in five years amounts to just thirty-nine pounds. Take my advice, Joe, and if you can't pay him, let him summons you and pay what's ordered, and wash your hands of M'Cool and all his man-eating crew.' And I've been and done it, sir!"